Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Purpose of Education

C. is staying with us now, and she forced this discussion on us : Who would you call an ‘educated’ person? As one thing leads to other, the thought trail went further – what is the purpose of education anyway and how does it affect anyone individually and also a society as a whole.

Big questions, these. Also, one needs to be qualified to answer such questions. But there must be layman’s answer: A sort of a generalist view, which may not earn a Ph D, but something which can be understood and can be used to explain some of the maladies of lack of education.

When the question was asked, a Sanksrit sloka came to my mind, which says Education gives you humility, which leads to success, fame and money. A very concise statement on the purpose of education, but slightly dated perhaps. Humility is not COOL. It is OUT. Self-advertising is IN. It is a Brand You world, as Tom Peters will say. So, has the purpose of education changed?

But if you look at the process of education, and the format of it, you will see quite a bit has been retained since the ancient ages. For example, the teacher refuses to go away, despite the internet. Education, as opposed to training, is often about learning things, which may not have a direct practical significance, not at least in the short term. So, has the purpose of education really changed?

Not quite, I would say. I would try the best answer that I can reconcile with my Hindu upbringing: education is about knowing the unknown, and removing the fear of the different. We all have our cosy corners, as a child or as an adult, and education is the process of initiating us to the world. It is about making us open, and humble.

Yes, it is not about qualifications or grades. Neither is it about the time spent or number of books read or numbers of pages written. Nor about being an expert. It is about the ability of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and meeting the world. Knowing that people, and places, are different. Our lives are inevitably narrow – in terms of time and space. Education is about introducing the existence of the wider world in our lives; it is indeed about imbibing a long view, of ourselves, of our societies.

An educated person, then, is one who respects – others, otherness. One, who knows the advantages of humility, as Hindu sages so pragmatically advised. One who can question what J K Galbraith called ‘conventional wisdom’. One who imbibes the open and enlightened approach to morality with the humanist respect and general good behaviour. S/he is one who does not hide in the classroom, but meet the world halfway down the road.

I must admit, as it is plain to see, that a deliberate attempt has been made, in the last thirty or so years, to move education away from this format. I see no conspiracy, let me assert, just the general blindness that comes with success. The ‘conventional wisdom’ is that in those thirty years, human civilisation has achieved a lot, more than any other previous centuries. A sense of perspective would have prompted a question: Was the invention of making a fire a less arduous discovery than the process of creating usable atomic energy? Or creating the first wheel any less significant than creating hybrid automobile engines? However, such confidence in ‘the way it is going’ has prompted a move, in format as in substance, from the education which initiates one to the unknown, to a format which is for creating experts - a narrower comfort zone and false confidence combined with essential short-termism.

Let us return to C. again, for a final thought. Her Ph D thesis is about Innovation, Flexibility and Competitiveness. How coincidental, considering that her world view prompted us to think about education in the first place? I say that as innovation is so intricately related to the openness than comes with good education, the art of humility and long view. I am sure that she will disagree with me vigorously regarding my views on education, but I hope that, in the end of her Ph D, she will return to the advise of my Hindu sage – I paraphrase – Education gives humility, which leads to openness, flexibility and finally, competitiveness.

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